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Grief and Disenfranchised Grief
Report on a speech by Evelyn Robinson,
By Nathalie Troland

At the June 1997 Australian Adoption conference in Brisbane, Evelyn Robinson delivered a speech on "Grief Associated with the Loss of Children to Adoption." The speech was taken from Ms. Robinson's essay on "Bereavement and Loss", which was written for her degree in social work. Ms. Robinson also presented the material in August 1998 in Scotland and is currently writing a book on the subject. Much of the text below was taken directly from her work.

Grief is the emotional response to loss. The loss can range anywhere from the loss of a loved one to the loss of a relationship through divorce or illness, or even a change in life-style such as a geographical or occupational move. It is characterized by feelings of sadness, hopelessness, depression, numbness, anger and even guilt. In normal grief resolution, these feelings gradually subside. Disenfranchised grief, however, interferes with normal grief resolution causing the feelings associated with grief to persist for a very long time.

According to Kenneth Doka, disenfranchised grief is grief that is not openly acknowledged, socially accepted or publicly mourned. Moreover, the relationship is not recognized, the loss is not recognized or the griever is not recognized. Doka believes that mourners whose grief is disenfranchised are cut off from social supports. With few opportunities to express and resolve their grief, they feel alienated from their community and tend to hold onto their grief more tenaciously than they might if their grief was recognized.

According to Ms. Robinson, the grief of relinquishing mothers fits the definition of disenfranchised grief in the following ways. First of all, the pregnancy and relinquishment were most often kept secret, preventing any open acknowledgment of the loss. The grief was not socially supported since the natural mother had placed herself in a position that was unacceptable to society. She was to blame and therefore had no right to mourn. The natural mother was an embarrassment to her family and others so the grief could not be publicly mourned. She had to pretend that the birth and loss of her child never happened. In addition, in a relinquishment situation, the mother child relationship was not recognized, therefore the natural mother was not recognized as a legitimate mourner since the loss of her child was not considered real.

Resolution of Grief

The goal in successful grief resolution is to reestablish emotional equilibrium. Ms. Robinson used Worden's model of grief counseling from his book, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, to demonstrate how the disenfranchised grief of natural mothers interferes with the successful resolution of grief. The four aspects he presents as necessary for successful grief resolution include: first, accept the reality of the loss; second, experience the pain of grief; third, adjust to the environment from which the lost person is missing; and fourth, withdraw emotional energy and reinvest it in another relationship. The disenfranchised grief that natural mothers experience interferes with the completion of all of these tasks.

It is difficult for a natural mother to deal with the first task, to accept the reality of her loss, since she has no concrete focus for her grief. In many cases, she never saw or held her baby. Since the child probably still exists, there is no finality to the loss of her relationship with her child.

Dreams and illusions are hard to mourn. There is also no opportunity for her to experience the pain of her loss since the relinquishment is often a secret. Her situation made others uncomfortable and therefore she could not verbalize her grief. She had to suppress and deny her pain. The third task is also impossible for a natural mother. How can she adjust to a new environment without her child when the child was never accorded a place in her life anyway? And yet her life situation and psychological environment has changed dramatically. Finally, how can she reinvest her emotional energy in another relationship when this one still exists, if only in her mind?

In normal bereavement, rituals surround and ease the pain of the bereaved. But for cases of disenfranchised grief, there are no rituals. A natural mother receives no cards, flowers, or expressions of sympathy. There is nothing to validate her loss. Society sees no reason for her to grieve so there are no allowances for a change in her demeanor, behavior or outlook as there would be in regular bereavement situations. In addition, there are no rituals to delineate the length of mourning. No wonder many natural mothers feel as if their grief will never end.

Some natural mothers place added blame upon themselves for not being able to "get over it". When the mourner feels responsible for the loss, it results in feelings of shame and guilt. Relinquishing mothers feel that, not only were they to blame for the unmarried pregnancy and relinquishment, they were also to blame for not dealing with their grief successfully, making grief resolution even more difficult.

Effects of Disenfranchised Grief

The effects of disenfranchised grief and consequent poor grief resolution are displayed in a variety of ways and in varying degrees. Depression, emotional disturbances, withdrawal from society, psychosomatic illnesses and low self-esteem are all symptoms. Many of those affected succumb to substance abuse and have difficulty in forming healthy relationships. Jeffrey Kaufmann is quoted in Disenfranchised Grief, "The loss of community that may occur as a consequence of disenfranchised grief fosters an abiding sense of loneliness and abandonment". Furthermore, people with disenfranchised grief often have trouble in coping with subsequent losses. Doka states "..the old disenfranchisement will affect the new situation and may enforce a repetition of the earlier inhibited grief pattern". In other words, how a natural mother learned to grieve for what was probably the first major loss in her life, she will most likely use, however ineffective, for the next loss.

Resolution of Disenfranchised Grief

Ms. Robinson believes, that because the disenfranchised grief of relinquishing mothers is complicated and deep, it is difficult, but not impossible, to resolve. First of all, a natural mother, starting with herself, needs to acknowledge and validate the loss in order to address her grief.

Current adoption policy and practice, however, complicates the matter. One way for a natural mother to establish the reality of her adult child is to retrieve any and all documentation, from the relinquishment paper to the original birth certificate, if available.  Also, letters and pictures from the time of the pregnancy and relinquishment might be helpful. In addition, Ms. Robinson believes that all natural mothers should search, if only to establish that their child is indeed alive and very much a reality. She understands that a successful search and/or reunion is not a panacea for grief resolution, since reunion is often traumatic in its own right.

Many natural mothers find healing in creating rituals surrounding the loss of the relationship. They make memorials from the very simple to the complex to validate their grief and "let it go". Many find solace in a ceremonial burial of their grief.

Ms. Robinson strongly emphasizes the need for post adoption services for natural mothers. These services, which she firmly believes should not be provided by an agency that arranges adoptions, should assist natural mothers in coping with the long lasting effects of their grief. The social workers or therapists must be completely familiar with the issue of disenfranchised grief and realize how difficult it is to resolve.

To quote Ms. Robinson directly, "The role of support groups cannot be overstated. Natural mothers have felt for many years marginalized and abandoned by society. It is very empowering for them to meet even one other woman who has also lost a child to adoption". To have someone else validate your pain and loss through understanding is often one of the first steps toward healing.


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